Relegation-threatened Watford welcomed table toppers Liverpool to Vicarage Road to try and do the unthinkable – get something from a game against a team that had won all but one of their previous 27 league matches.
The Hornets entered the game sitting one step above Norwich City at the bottom with 24 points, one less than Aston Villa in 18th, and two less than Bournemouth and West Ham in 17th and 16th, respectively. Liverpool, on the other hand, were looking to continue their magnificent run and secure their first Premier League title in three decades as soon as possible.
Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores was without fullback Daryl Janmaat, but the rest of his players were ready to play.
Ben Foster was in goal. Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart paired up in the heart of defence, with Kiko Fermenia on the right and Adam Masina on the left. Will Hughes and Etienne Capoue were tasked with doing the hard work in the middle of the park. Abdoulaye Doucoure was further up in line with wingers Ismaila Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu. Troy Deeney led the line upfront.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was without both his captain and vice-captain with Jordan Henderson and James Milner out injured. He was also unable to call upon winger Xherdan Shaqiri and defender Nathaniel Clyne. The decision to leave out defender Joe Gomez and midfielder Naby Keita was made as a precaution due to minor fitness issues.
Alisson Becker stood between the posts. Dejan Lovren joined Virgil van Dijk at the back, flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. Fabinho anchored the midfield consisting also of Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As always when all of them are fit, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino formed the front line.
The First Half
Showing the kind of courage they will definitely need for the rest of the season if they are to stay in the top flight, Watford came out attacking and after three minutes they worked up a good position for Deulofeu to shoot from around 20 yards. His low drive just missed the near post.
Off the ball the Hornets worked very hard, keeping their lines tight, and the visitors weren’t finding it easy to create something.
Liverpool stuck to their game too, and as time passed they were getting closer to Foster’s goal, limiting Watford now to defending and looking to hit on the counter. They probed a few times with balls over the top for Firmino and Salah, but in the 10th minute, Sarr and Doucoure did some excellent work in Liverpool’s half and eventually Deulofeu shot again, this time aiming for and just missing the far top corner. Less than two minutes later the home team attacked again, and Doucoure produced a smart paralel to find Deeney out wide on the left, but Wijnaldum tracked back and intercepted his cut-back into the box. In the 15th minute Deulofeu broke into the box on the left again and found Doucoure near the penalty spot, but Van Dijk stood calm and produced a vital block. It was a promising start for Watford.
Such a lively approach not only made the players in black-and-yellow look dangerous; it also destabilized the usually ice-cold visitors whose lines had a lot of trouble linking up. There were mistakes in passing, more than usual, and although their players worked hard too, not much was going their way in the opening period.
The first moment that even resembled a chance for the Reds came in the 20th minute when Oxlade-Chamberlain found the run of Salah with a nicely lobbed pass, but the home side’s defence crowded the Egyptian out.
The game went on in pretty much the same manner, with Liverpool having more of the ball but Watford looking the more dangerous team. In the 30th minute Doucoure did well to take Lovren out of the game but the joint effort of Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold was enough to thwart him.
Two minutes later, Watford had their first problem. Having lost a physical contest with Van Dijk, Deulofeu went down holding his knee in agony. Pearson was forced to react and after a short warm-up, Roberto Pereyra took to the pitch. Deulofeu was stretchered off to a loud applause from both sets of supporters, and the Watford boss will be anxious as he awaits news of the winger’s injury.
Liverpool quickly continued with their attempts to move the line of battle s close to Foster’s goal as possible, but their play still showed an unusual lack of imagination. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are usually their main source of creativity through the flanks, but the two fullbacks simply couldn’t produce the kind of spark they’re both known for. On the other hand, Deeney was very fortunate in the 41st minute to go card-less after a really late tackle on Alexander-Arnold. The same can be said of Hughes who stamped on Wijnaldum’s foot a minute later.
Liverpool’s front three often switched positions so we were able to see for example Salah moving left, Mane in the middle and Firmino on the right, but the changes weren’t very effective either.
On the other hand, Watford came very close to taking the lead in the final of the five minutes of injury time. Lovren had just cleared the box but the ball was sent right back in behind for Deeney to chase. It looked as if Alisson would calmly pick it up, but the Watford captain did enough to disturb the ‘keeper and pinch it back. Unable to take a shot, he tried to lob it towards the far post looking for the run of Sarr, but Van Dijk had read his mind and was on hand to deal with it.
The Second Half
It took Watford less than a minute to create a great chance. Deeney dropped deep and drew Lovren out of position. Sarr moved inwards and used his pace to break through the hole left by the Croatian, but his shot didn’t have enough on it to properly trouble Alisson.
Liverpool hit back this time. They worked a nice position for Salah to shoot from the edge of the box, but his effort was blocked by Kabasele. Nonetheless, the Reds were now getting into their stride more. Their passing became much more accurate after the break and they found it easier than before to keep the ball and recycle their attacks. Not willing to let the game go that way, Watford players became more aggressive and were lucky to escape cards a few more times. With 50 minutes gone, Liverpool created their first real chance as Wijnaldum found the run of Robertson in behind and the left-back shot on target, forcing Foster into a good save.
But in the very next attack Watford suddenly took the lead. They had won a throw-in on the left and it was allowed to bounce into the box and get picked up by Doucoure. Van Dijk was unusually bleak in his attempt to stop him, and the midfielder was able to to pull it back for the incoming Sarr who beat Robertson to it and tapped in from close range.
Liverpool usually know how to respond to unexpectedly going down but this time, after one promising attack down the left again, their game grew stale again quickly. Lifted by the lead, Watford doubled it only six minutes later.
Deeney fought well near the touchline on the right this time and produced a fantastic pass in behind for Sarr to chase. The winger showed Van Dijk his heels, charged at Alisson and finished well.
Klopp felt it was time to act and Adam Lallana came on to replace Wijnaldum.
It was a strange game in this period. Watford were cutting through Liverpool with unexplainable ease and Hughes almost made it three in the 63rd minute, but his shot hit Sarr.
Klopp’s next move was to withdraw Oxlade-Chamberlain and send Divock Origi into the fray. The changes soon started making a difference as Lallana managed to hit the post from just inside the box, but Watford still weren’t going to let the visitors play. They still pressed and worked hard all over the pitch and showed strong intention to score more.
With Liverpool now giving it all, Mane started making himself noticed. In the 69th minute he broke towards the box from the right and Watford defence had no choice but to mow him down on the edge of the box. The ball was now frequently put in there, and all of the Hornets’ back line had to be on their toes without a split-second break.
The Reds were now playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Lallana dropping deep alongside Fabinho, Origi on the left, Mane on the right, and Firmino behind Salah upfront. They were finally starting to control the flow of the game, but Watford put the sword through them one more time in the 73rd minute. A silly (for a lack of better word) backpass by Alexander-Arnold was intercepted by Sarr and the winger was inside the box. The situation forced Alisson off his line and the Brazilian ‘keeper did well to close his angle down, but Deeney was there to offer support and slot it into the empty net.
The Liverpool players were clearly stunned. Their passing became erratic once again and they couldn’t cause any problems for the Watford defence at all. Klopp’s final card was to replace Firmino with Takumi Minamino. There was less than 15 minutes to go. The visitors, however, went forward again and almost got caught in the 82nd minute, but Sarr missed a clear-cut chance to complete a hat-trick. It was his last act of the game and Ignacio Pussetto came on to replace him.
Watford stayed disciplined in the final minutes of the match and continued working hard, but they were now quite comfortable with what was going on. They found it easy to defend against a completely flustered opponent, but they always kept an eye out for an opportunity to hit the Premier League leaders where it hurts and add insult to injury.
Liverpool had absolutely no penetration through the middle without Oxlade-Chamberlain and Firmino and all the Hornets had to do was focus when defending out wide. Mane caused them a few problems with some skillful dribbling, but they always managed to crowd him out. Minamino was trying to be industrious and constantly popped up everywhere, but he too always ran into a wall of black-and-yellow shirts. Fabinho tried a few lobbed passes towards Salah, but to no avail. Kabasele and Cathcart were impeccable.
As funny as it may sound if you haven’t seen the game, Watford absolutely deserved this result. Very few people believed they would be able to stop Liverpool’s run of 18 consecutive wins, even less that they would end their hopes of a season without defeat, but they obviously believed it all. Pearson got his team and his tactics spot on and his men completely stifled the European champions. The referee maybe allowed them to get away with a lot (there wasn’t a single card shown all game), especially Deeney and Hughes in the first half, but it can’t be said to have had any impact on the final scoreline.
The three points and the improved goal-difference has gotten the Hornets out of the relegation zone at least for a while, with Aston Villa two points behind and a game in hand.
As for Liverpool, there will be a lot for the players to reflect on, but Klopp will also probably want to examine his own setup. It was the same setup he has mostly used throughout the season which has indeed been blissful until now, but given what happened here he may want to shuffle the cards a bit for next Saturday when Bournemouth come to visit.
With Manchester City’s game against Arsenal postponed, Liverpool still have a 22-point lead and need to win just four games to secure the title mathematically. If the lesson in battling complacency is learnt, this defeat may be turned in their favour providing it spurs them on back to the level the whole world knows they’re capable of playing at. If not, it could be an omen of an end to the season more nervy than it should be, given the size of the gap behind them.
WATFORD: Foster 7, Kabasele 7.5, Cathcart 7.5, Fermenia 7.5, Masina 7.5, Capoue 7, Hughes 7, Doucoure 7.5 (90′ Chalobah N/A), Deulofeu 7.5 (37′ Pereyra 7), Sarr 8 (82′ Pussetto N/A), Deeney 8.5.
LIVERPOOL: Alisson 6.5, Van Dijk 7, Lovren 5, Alexander-Arnold 6, Robertson 6, Fabinho 6, Wijnaldum 6.5 (61′ Lallana 6.5), Oxlade-Chamberlain 6.5 (65′ Origi 5.5), Salah 6, Mane 5.5, Firmino 6 (79′ Minamino 6).
GOALS: Sarr 54′, 60′, Deeney 73′.
YELLOW CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Michael Oliver.
DATE & VENUE: February 29, 2020, Vicarage Road, Watford.